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US Job Growth Slows in January

US companies added substantially fewer jobs last month than analysts expected, according to this morning’s update from the Labor Dept.

 

By James Picerno

The 158,000 increase in private payrolls is a decent gain, but it’s well below Econoday.com’s consensus forecast for a 180,000 pop. Meantime, the slow grind lower for the year-over-year gain rolls on, echoing yesterday’s numbers from ADP. The labor market still has a fair amount of forward momentum, but the evidence is building that the peak has passed. That’s a concern at a time when the broad trend for growth has hit some turbulence.


The good news: using the latest data point as a guide still reflects a solid gain for private payrolls via the annual change. The 2.18% increase in January is a healthy advance in context with the historical record over the past two decades. The worry is that the persistent and ongoing deceleration in the trend that’s been in play for the past year is a signal that the recovery’s internal momentum may be fading.

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To be fair, a similar downshift unfolded during the 12 months through the first quarter of 2013. It turned out to be a false alarm, although the real-time numbers suggested otherwise until well after the fact. For perspective, that downshift cut the year-over-year increase in private payrolls to roughly 1.8% as of March 2013–down from the previous peak of nearly 2.5% a year earlier.

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By that standard, the current 2.2% year-over-year increase through last month still looks encouraging. The question is whether there’s more deceleration to come? Today’s update offers a slightly stronger case for answering “yes”. The current 2.2% annual increase is only moderately below the previous peak of 2.6% from a year ago, but gravity appears to be in control, albeit modestly so.

But this debate is far from over. In fact, there’s good news to consider via today’s upwardly revised outlook for GDP in this year’s first quarter: +2.2% via the Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow Model (as of Feb. 5), a strong rebound from Q4’s tepid 0.7% rise.

In other words, there’s still no smoking gun for expecting the worst for the macro outlook. Today’s payrolls update is “a very encouraging report — the fact that wages rose is very important, the unemployment rate continues to go lower, and job growth at 151,000 is still a good number,” Kathy Bostjancic, an economist at Oxford Economics USA, tells Bloomberg. She adds, however, that “we can’t continue at December’s pace going forward — that’s not sustainable.”

Perhaps, then, the crucial question is whether the trend in job creation will stabilize at or near current levels in the months ahead? That’s certainly a possibility–as long as the macro trend stays positive.

“We think the recession talk is overdone and that labor markets are the primary signal that suggests the economy is healthier than people think,” according to Michael Gapen, chief United States economist at Barclays, via The New York Times. “There is weakness in places tied to energy and in the industrial Midwest, but it’s not widespread and doesn’t suggest there is a more systemic problem.”

On that note, one school of thought argues that because the recovery has been relatively weak the hobbled state of growth can run on for longer than usual.

In any case, count the markets as skeptical at the moment. The trend for US equities looks shaky, as discussed earlier today. Meanwhile, Fed funds futures markets expect that the central bank will punt on raising interest rates next month, based on CME data.

The bottom line: it remains premature to argue that the US slipped into a new recession. The bad news: it’s not obvious that the recent phase of growth deterioration has ended.